A new biography of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has just come out—Breaking In, by Reuters reporter Joan Biskupic, who has previously Boswelled Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia.
In a review of the book in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Kay Hymowitz pulls no punches and indicates that Ms. Biskup may have revealed more about her twin themes—Sotomayor’s rise and the growing influence of the Hispanic community—than she intended.
Ms. Hymowitz writes:
Ms. Biskupic’s narrative about the rise of Hispanics in the U.S. contains a story within a story—one about the spread of affirmative action. The policy had been applied to certain government contracts since the Kennedy era, but preferences only became widespread on campuses in the early 1970s, just as Ms. Sotomayor was applying to college. There is little doubt that her test scores would have failed to impress the Princeton admissions office if her parents had been European or Asian.
But Hymowitz in the next paragraph rightly acknowledges the future justice’s hard work and resilience that helped her succeed at Princeton, despite test scores that probably would not have gotten her into the prestigious university without affirmative action (Sotomayor has called herself “the perfect affirmative action baby”):
As she detailed in “My Beloved World” (2013), her father was an alcoholic and died when she was 9. Her mother was emotionally distant and only fitfully attentive, and so it fell to Sonia to manage the diabetes she had developed a year earlier. At Princeton, her resilience and work ethic easily surpassed that of many of her white classmates with more enviable SAT scores. She graduated with a Phi Beta Kappa key and a prize for scholarly excellence and went on to Yale Law School.
Sotomayor went from Princeton to a job in Manhattan DA Robert Morganthau’s office and then to a small law firm where she specialized in intellectual property rights. Becoming “as savvy with her Rolodex as she was alert to the usefulness of her life story,” Sotomayor won a seat on the district court, partly with the patronage of Republican Al D’Amato, who was eager for some kudos with the Hispanic community.
When Supreme Court Justice David Souter resigned in 2009, President Obama looked to Sotomayor, attracted more by “racial and gender diversity” than what Sotomayor thought or knew about the law. She was a shoo-in for confirmation:
Smarting from the demographic message of the 2008 Obama victory, Republicans didn’t dare get in her way, and she was quickly confirmed. By the end of her first term on the bench, Justice Sotomayor had a million-dollar contract to write a memoir. The book would make her a celebrity, “the people’s justice”—a term that until her tenure would have struck most people as oxymoronic.
It is possible to sympathize with Justice Sotomayor’s early travails and admire her perseverance and still be appalled that she has a lifelong appointment to the highest tribunal in the land based not on legal knowledge and wisdom but on identity politics. It cannot be denied that legal talent didn’t count for much when President Obama nominated and the Senate confirmed Justice Sotomayor.
Indeed, I think that we can argue that Justice Sotomayor is a savvy Latina much more than the “wise Latina” of her own formulation. Born in 1954, Justice Sotomayor will influence American law for many years to come.